There is something about the Madison, that grand-daddy of line dances, that has continually captured the cinematic fancy of great film directors. The most notable of these are Jean-Luc Godard who created a famous dance scene based on the Madison in his 1964 film Bande à Part, and John Waters who depicted the dance in a scene in the original 1988 Hairspray. For both directors this dance, with its post-modern use of repetition, accumulation, and cultural references, was a perfect vehicle to suspend the plotlines of their films and delve into the inner workings of their characters.
Dance scene from Bande à Part
In Bande à Part, the famous dance scene comes after the equally famous “minute of silence” scene in which two of the main characters, Arthur and Odile, decide to be silent in a café. After the silent spell is broken by Franz, Arthur and Odile decide to get up and dance (and are soon joined by Franz). In a way, this dance continues the pause begun earlier with the minute of silence. There has been a rent in action, the world is still not normal. People do not normally just get up and dance in cafes where no one else is dancing. Also, we don’t know if there is actually music playing in the room because it drops out occasionally when a narrator speaks, but we still hear the dancers’ foot shuffles and claps. Could they actually be dancing in silence? At the same time, the narrator’s voice brings in yet another level of reality as he tells us what each character is thinking about while they dance. This scene, while appearing to be so simple, is actually a very sophisticated example of how film can reveal many layers of reality at once. We see the “normal” world of the cafe around the characters, the familiar dance style of the The Madison being performed out of context, and then the shifting reality of the sound and narration telling us about things we can’t see. No wonder this scene has been so influential on numerous other movies, Hal Hartley’s dance scene in Simple Men being a prime example.
Dance scene from Simple Men
Unlike many other filmmakers that made dance scenes in the footsteps of Godard, Waters’ Madison scene in Hairspray was a completely different take. First of all, Waters is a connoisseur of ’60’s dances. In addition to bringing the Madison back to greatness, he also reacquainted us with “The Mashed Potato,” “The Fly,” and “The Bump.” It is clear however, that “The Madison” was one of his favorites, by virtue of the length of the scene and the many variations lovingly depicted.
Excerpt of the Madison scene in Hairspray
Like Godard’s scene in Bande à Part, this one takes a long and sultry pause in the action and we learn a little more about how the characters really feel. The heroine, Tracy Turnblad cuts in between Link Larson (her love interest) and the prissy Amber von Tussle (Link’s girlfriend). Link shows interest in Tracy, and Amber shoots her with disdain. All the while, the hypnotic rhythm and swing of the dance continues, turning the characters about and giving them actions which belie their feelings and motivations. I love the choreography of this Madison. It’s complex but supposed to look easy. The call of the DJ instructs the dancers about what to do next, and each repetition of the dance adds a new gesture. The names of the moves are really great too, including “T time”, “The Basketball (with Wilt Chamberlain)” and the “The Rifleman”.
According to Wikipedia and the Columbus Music History website, the Madison developed in Columbus, Ohio in 1957. It was popularized by Count Basie in 1959, and quickly spread as he toured across the US and Europe. Apparently Waters’ depiction of the dance is accurate, and Godard’s is not (although he never calls it the Madison in the film, that was just what the actors called it). Nevertheless, it is clear that this dance has a certain something that is especially well suited for the silver screen. Maybe it’s the mesmerizing repetition, or its ability to unify a motley cast of characters, or maybe it’s just ’cause it swings, but whatever the case the Madison has been a catalyst for new innovations in film, and has undoubtedly inspired many generations of filmmakers to use dance in novel and sophisticated ways.
This article is part of Ferdy On Films’ Invitation to the Dance Movie Blogathon happening May 4-10, 2008 all over the blogosphere…
Many thanks to Levi Gonzalez whose program at Kinetic Cinema on Monday night (5/5/08) inspired me to write about Godard’s dance scene in Bande à Part.
Bande à Part (Band of Outsiders) is playing at Film Forum in NYC this weekend – Thurs-Sat 5/22-5/24. Click here for ticket info.